Officials: Fire-prone food carts get little oversight from city

Portland's fire code does not apply to food carts like it does to restaurants and other permanent structures

By Jessica Floum
The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — Wednesday's explosive fire that destroyed two Downtown Portland food carts, injured two and ignited nearby cars was the second fire in two years that scorched multiple carts.

Cardboard food containers, hot cooking oil and bustling activity packed into tiny confines can make food carts "highly flammable," Portland Fire Bureau spokeswoman Louisa Jones said.

That's in part why the fire at Southwest First Avenue and Columbia Street spread quickly, she said. A similar phenomenon occurred in a May 2015 fire that destroyed three food carts and damaged two more at the Portland State University pod.

Propane fueled both of the fires. The fire bureau promised after the 2015 fire "to make sure that propane use is safe" in food carts and trucks.

The Portland Fire Bureau does require all carts that use propane to obtain a yearly permit and agree to follow rules, including having commercial grade fire extinguishers. Yet, the Portland Fire Bureau does little to enforce that requirement or inspect carts for fire safety.

Portland's fire code does not apply to food carts like it does to restaurants and other permanent structures, Jones said.  Because carts are "considered mobile units," their regulation falls to the Federal Department of Transportation, fire bureau officials said in a press release Wednesday.

Multnomah County licenses food carts. But only about 800 of the 1,200 food carts in Multnomah County have permits with the county, Jones said.

To get a propane permit from the Portland Fire Bureau, food cart owners need to pay $25 and read a set of rules for how to use propane responsibly. The rules include having a fire extinguisher, storing the propane tank outside in a vented area and turning off the tank when it is not in use or when changing the tank. The rules also limit the amount of fuel that food carts can store.

The fire bureau could neither confirm nor deny Thursday whether the two food carts that caught fire Wednesday were properly permitted. Jones also could not say how many food carts have propane permits. The fire bureau does not have an electronic tracking system, making it harder to track who is following the propane rules.

Many carts are likely operating without propane permits, Jones said.

"These guys are mobile and at the end of the day, if they don't want to be regulated, they can pick up and move elsewhere," Jones said.

The fire bureau doesn't inspect food carts' propane set-ups before awarding a permit. It doesn't have the resources to inspect all the food carts in the city, she said.

"We would love to see of course all safety practices followed," Jones said. "It's hard when we can only regulate one very small portion."

In April, she said, a junior fire inspector led an "educational campaign" at food cart pods, telling cart owners the rules for propane usage and handing out permits. Senior inspectors only "spot check" food carts if they receive complaints about them.

Food cart owners, Jones said, need to take responsibility for safely operating their food cart.

Jones did not make Portland Fire Marshal Nate Takara available for comment Thursday. She said, however, that he believes in operating strictly according to code and considers inspecting food carts for fire safety a no-no because it goes beyond city.

"At this point it would requires (the) City Council adopting city code," Jones said.

Portland Fire Commissioner Dan Saltzman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Copyright 2017 The Oregonian

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